The World Health Organization (WHO) decided on Tuesday not to investigate allegations the COVID-19 outbreak began at a virology laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan, calling the theory “extremely unlikely.”
At a Tuesday press conference, WHO food safety and animal disease expert Peter Ben Embarek said the organization will focus its investigations into COVID-19’s origins on an assessment the disease likely spread from animals to humans.
Embarek said investigators began by considering four hypotheses: (1) coronavirus began with a direct jump from an animal species to humans; (2) the virus began with an animal-to-human transmission through an intermediary species closer to human biology; (3) food acted as a surface for the transmission of the virus; and (4) the outbreak originated from a laboratory. Embarek said investigators put arguments for and against each theory, to weed out which theories were less likely.
“Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that will require more studies and more specific, targeted research,” Embarek said.
He went on to assess each theory, ending on the lab outbreak theory.
Embarek said, “The findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population. Therefore it is not a hypothesis that we advise to suggest future studies … into the understanding of the origin of the virus.”
The WHO was recently granted access to investigate the virus in China and investigators arrived in mid-January, to begin the investigation.
The organization has been criticized in the past for its initial response to the coronavirus and its close ties with the Chinese government.
In April Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) called for an investigation into the WHO, and accused the organization of failing to notify the world of the severity of the coronavirus in a timely manner.
“We know Communist China is lying about how many cases and deaths they have, what they knew and when they knew it – and the WHO never bothered to investigate further. Their inaction cost lives,” Scott said in April.
Critics of the WHO have also noted a January tweet by the organization, indicating “no clear evidence of a human-to-human transmission of the virus.”
In July, then-President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. to end its partnership with the WHO.
In the final weeks of Trump’s presidential term, the State Department released a fact sheet noting several potential connections between activities at the Wuhan lab and the outbreak of COVID-19. The fact sheet noted the lab had conducted research on a coronavirus strain with a 96.2% similarity to the SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 strain. The fact sheet also noted past accidental infections in Chinese labs, like a 2004 incident that saw an outbreak of SARS in Beijing that infected nine people and led to one death.
Despite Trump-era suspicions of the WHO, President Joe Biden has moved to bring the U.S. back into partnership with the U.N. health organization.
While rejecting the lab outbreak theory, which had been promoted by the Trump administration, WHO officials have also called theories the virus originated anywhere other than China, “highly speculative.” The focus on China as the point of origin for the virus outbreak undercuts efforts by China to blame other countries, including the U.S. for the outbreak.